Operators fear a drop in arrivals, particular among the dollar-paying set

Tourism: The April 25 earthquake in Nepal could lead to a drop in international tourist arrivals in the country, with several trips already being cancelled, according to tour operators.

Following the earthquake, tour operators said they had to accept the cancellations, or reschedule flights from Bangkok to Paro.  Tour operators said most preferred cancellations.

Hoteliers also said that there were several cancellations that were mostly last minute. “In such a scenario, we don’t have a choice but to apply cancellation charges,” a hotelier said. “Those, who come, call the hotels and ask if it was safe to travel to Bhutan.”

Otherwise, with the peak tourist season on, most hotels in town were fully occupied at least for this month.

Since tourism activities were privatised in 1991, most local tour operators worked jointly with India and Nepal, mainly owing to lack of exposure in the absence of the internet.  This is why tour operators said, even today, Nepal and India are jointly promoted as multiple destinations.  Tour operators are still dependent on agents in India and Nepal.  Now with more exposure, many tour operators, over the years, established direct linkages with international agents beyond Nepal and India.

Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators’ executive director, Sonam Dorji, said the earthquake would have some impact on tourism in Bhutan.

Sonam Dorji said the trend of tourists visiting Bhutan is such that many combine their trips with one or more destinations. “Any problem in the region will have an impact on Bhutan,” he said, citing the example of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong in 2002 that also affected tourism in Bhutan.

Besides, with the country highly reliable on connectivity, direct access to the major source markets remains an issue. “This is another reason we’re dependent on countries in the region for connectivity,” Sonam Dorji said.

An exit survey on international visitors from the 2013 tourism monitor states that about 32 percent of the respondents indicated Bhutan as a sole destination, while about 29 and 24 percent combined their trips with Nepal and India respectively.  About 20 percent of the visitors combined their trips with Thailand.

The survey states that visitors also combined their Bhutan trip with Cambodia, Laos, and Bangladesh.  Visitors from Japan, a major source market for Bhutan, chose Bhutan as a sole destination.  Similarly, visitors from other top Asian markets, like Thailand and Singapore, also chose Bhutan as a sole destination.

“This is mainly owing to the availability of direct flights from these two countries,” the tourism monitor states.  There were 64,028 international visitors in 2013.

The tourism monitor also states that about 37 percent of visitor combined their travel itineraries with Nepal, about 29 percent with Thailand, and about 27 percent with India.  European markets, like Germany, UK, and the Netherlands, preferred to combine their Bhutan trip predominantly with India or Nepal, or both.  About 63 percent of visitors from Italy combined their Bhutan trip with India, while more  than half of Canadian visitors combined their trip with Nepal.

The proprietor of Wind Horse Tours and Treks, Rinzin Jamtsho, said some of his clients also cancelled their trips, as they were already in Tibet when the earthquake occurred.

Another tour operator, Palden Gandhi of Bhutan Dynasty, said he handled six cancellations, of which he could divert the trip for three groups. “Diversion of flights is also an issue, owing to the schedules,” he said. “It’s likely that more tourists could cancel their trips, since people still fear that there could be another earthquake in the Himalayas.”

ABC Tours and Treks proprietor, Nidup Wangdi, said they received cancellations for about 40 tourists for June alone. “There could be more in the months to come,” he said.

Some tour operators, however, were not affected.  For them, it is an opportunity to promote Bhutan as an alternative destination.  The earthquake in Nepal, tour operators said, could lead to an increase in regional tourists.

The proprietor of Blue Poppy Tours and Trek, Choki Dorji, said, although his company was not affected yet, for those supposed to come via Nepal, he had to arrange it via Bangkok and New Delhi. “It’s mostly tour operators, who are working with agents in Nepal, that could have been affected,” he said.

Choki Dorji said they were hopeful that tourist arrival in Bhutan would increase, as some could opt for a trip to Bhutan instead of Nepal. “I’ve already received some tourists, who cancelled their trip to Tibet and Nepal,” he said.

After the earthquake hit Nepal, several media reports stated that tour operators in India and Nepal, including big players like Thomas Cook, MakeMyTrip and Cleartrip, offered Nepal-bound travellers alternative destinations and refunds.  The alternative destinations include Bhutan as well.

By Kinga Dema


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